I no longer just say “I’m sorry” nor do I request it from my toddler. Instead, we try to reflect on the true meaning of Teshuvah. Many of us have been raised to believe that during Rosh Hashanah, and especially Yom Kippur, our focus should be on repentance and saying we are sorry.
Every Yom Kippur, our Facebook newsfeed fills up with general statements of “I am sorry to those who I have I wronged in the past year”. Yet, the word Teshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance”. According to many sources, the more accurate translation is “return” and signifies a return to the original state (Chabbad, Aish). Is just saying “I’m sorry” really what the High Holy days are about?
When young children are forced to say “I’m sorry” they don’t always understand why they are saying this phrase, nor are they given a solution to avoid the transgression in the first place. We can look to the Jewish scholar, Maimonides, who described four steps to Teshuvah, to help guide us.
Steps to Teshuvah:
Stop: Recognize and discontinue the improper action.
Verbalize: Verbally confess and address the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in your own mind.
Regret: Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or on others.
Make a Plan: Devise a plan to handle the situation better next time and a solution to avoid the wrongdoing in the first place.
In schools and at home, we can take the opportunity to help children by giving them the language and the vocabulary to recognize transgressions and give them tools to help solve or rectify the situation. We can look at a common situation that occurs with toddlers to help us understand how to use the steps of Teshuvah with our children. When toddlers hit, they do so out of frustration, not because they are malicious or they truly want to hurt the other person. Use the steps of Teshuvah in this situation: stop the behavior immediately (stop the hitting). Verbalize what just happened “I see that you are frustrated and that you hit your friend.” Explain the result of the behavior “When you hit your friend you hurt them and make them cry.” You can have the child say “I’m sorry”, but also have the child try to rectify the situation and take action. They can ask “how can I make you feel better?” Then help the child find a solution to avoid the frustration in the first place or deal with the frustration in a better way: taking turns, playing with another toy or friend, find an adult, etc.
True Teshuvah can be difficult. We often are quick to apologize to our loved ones when we hurt them, but how often do we take a moment to reflect on our behavior and the results of our actions and commit to changing our behavior? Although we can’t change others’ behavior, believe me I have tried, we can change our behavior and the way we interact and react to others. Since having my daughter, this idea of introspection and reflection is especially important to me because the way I interact with my husband and those around me affects the way my daughter will interact with people. Our children learn from us whether we intend it or not. Modeling the steps of Teshuvah in our everyday interactions can help strengthen the relationships we have with our loved ones and our relationship with G-d. I no longer just say I’m sorry when I transgress but instead figure out how to truly make the other person feel better and try to become a better person in the process.
Natalie recently moved back to Denver with her husband and two year old daughter after being away many years. She is an education consultant specializing in early childhood education and helps Jewish preschools create and develop curriculum and programming. She loves going on adventures with her daughter especially at the pool and zoo.